On a rainy Monday morning in May, a pretty blue house set sail down the River Thames. Draped in wisteria, it had a red front door and a grassy garden with bright pink walls. Inside were two bedrooms, a kitchen, a lounge and a bathroom, with running water, plumbing and more floor space than the average London flat.
The building cruised along the river for four days, past landmarks including The Shard and the London Eye. Airbnb set up a listings page for the house on its website, with a competition to stay in it for a night, and hosted events in it in Chelsea, Westminster and Canary Wharf.
Designed by TBWALondon creative directors, and brothers, Steve and Nick Tidball (a former architect), the house was launched to promote new legislation allowing Londoners to rent out their homes for up to 90 days of the year (the practice was previously illegal without planning permission, though that didn’t stop thousands of residents listing their homes on Airbnb and similar sites). “We wanted to celebrate [the new law] by demonstrating a one-of-a-kind Airbnb and local London experience, with a sense of British humour and fun,” explains Alexandra Dimiziani, head of European marketing at Airbnb. “We also wanted to speak to the experiential nature of the brand,” she adds.
The design was inspired by the charming building from Pixar movie Up, as well as colourful houses in Chalcot Square, in London’s leafy Primrose Hill. “There were artistic influences too,” explain the Tidballs. “There’s French artist Laurent Chehere, who created an amazing photographic series of flying houses from his favourite homes in Paris; Jean-Francois Fourtou, who created the upside-down house, and a good friend of ours, Australian artist James Dive, who created a house where it always rained inside [titled I Wish You Hadn’t Asked]. I guess what we loved about these projects is that all of them just shifted one part of the context around a house a little bit to create something totally magical. That’s what we wanted to do here – create a house that looked as real as possible, but gently floating down the river.”
While the idea itself was simple enough, getting it signed off was no easy feat. Event producer Andy Ashton was responsible for compiling the various rules and restrictions the creative team would have to contend with, and sourcing companies who could help with the construction of the house. “It’s one thing selling a simple Photoshopped image of a picture postcard house floating underneath Tower Bridge, but it’s another keeping that looking simple,” says Steve. “Everything from wave heights to structural engineering challenges to red tape are all basically telling you your house would be way easier to do if it was a boat…. The ultimate sign-off rested with the Port of London Authority, and their stance relied on a combination of factors – safety, structure and logistics.”
One of the biggest challenges in designing the house was making something that looked like a normal home, but would be capable of withstanding wave heights of up to 1.4 metres and fitting underneath the Thames’ various bridges. “Once we’d solved that, it was ‘how do you counterbalance a 30-tonne steel house so it doesn’t sink?’” Steve adds. While the building appeared to be two storeys tall from the outside, it was in fact a single storey on top of a floating structure. The floor was raised 1.5 metres to conceal the base, the house and garden walls extended below the waterline. Also concealed was a tow mechanism attached to a tugboat 30 metres away, to meet PLA requirements stating that it had to be towed rather than self-propelled. Roger Barrett, a structural engineer and director of Star Events, worked closely with Nick throughout the project to ensure the finished house was structurally sound and capable of floating safely.
“Nick was working hand-in-hand pretty much every day with Roger … figuring out how to make it look right and also float,” says Steve. “Without that level of collaboration, you’d have ended up with either a picture-perfect house that sank, or an ugly house that floated perfectly but no-one looked at,” he believes.
Once the design was complete, the house was prefabricated at Set Square by a team of 40, then assembled on the floating platform in the Royal Docks, a process that took around a month. The main part of the house is made from three shipping containers which were cut and welded together, then welded on to a steel truss which ran the length of the house and garden and sat on top of a floating steel system. Exterior and garden walls were painted with a solution made to withstand water and wind, windows were made of reinforced glass, and the slate effect roof was also made from steel.Plumbing and pipes also had to be concealed – a huge water tank was hidden in a fake upstairs and outlet pipes inside a dog kennel in the garden. A series of openings along the bottom of the boat allowed electricity to be pumped in from piers where it was docked at night.
As no-one was allowed to sit in the house while it was moving, it had to be docked for events, meaning the team had to negotiate with various local authorities to get permission to stop. They were also forbidden from setting sail down the river in wind speeds of over 40 knots.
“With all of these challenges, we just had to accept them because it’s a working river and a live event,” explain the Tidballs. “Probably the most significant challenge in the whole project came with the bridges on the river – with the height of the water constantly changing, and with big swells, judging when the house could get under a bridge and when it couldn’t was a fine art. The final call each time was down to our tug captain. There was no messing around. If you got it wrong, you’d lose the roof and be hit with a £2 million fine.” At times, however, this worked in the team’s favour, allowing the house to be docked below the London Eye for four hours, ensuring it was seen by many a visiting tourist and passing Londoner.
The project took around four months from start to finish, and the Tidballs say they went through five iterations of the design. The finished look, however, strays little from their early sketches. “Aesthetically, we actually ended up where we started. The only difference was that [we wanted] a stone garden wall, but had to go for a pink-painted one,” explains Nick.
“Changes were all to do with logistics of what type of structure the house would be sitting on: if it had to be a pre-existing barge, then we would have had to build to those dimensions … we had specific proportions in mind for the house height, and the house-to-garden ratio, that would allow the house to look big enough up close, but also give it this miniature cartoon quality when it was out on the river,” he adds.
With most of the budget spent on making sure the house would float and look convincing, there was little money left for interiors. Tidball and Tidball sourced furniture and accessories from a mix of high street stores, including John Lewis, Waterstones, Habitat and Ikea to create a homely feel with a retro touch.
“If we’d bought it all from one place it would have looked too [like a] show home, and that wasn’t what we wanted to create,” says Nick. “We really wanted to create a feeling that this was someone’s home, as opposed to a pure art project, [and] we really liked having homely things like a bird table and a dog kennel and books lying around in the bathroom. When you were in the house itself you wouldn’t have known that you were on the water, unless you were looking directly out of the window.”
Airbnb has launched several installations and experiential stunts of late – in December, it teamed up with KLM to create an apartment in a plane at Schiphol airport, and in January, unveiled a room in a ski lift in Courchevel, both times running competitions to stay in the accommodation on their website. The floating house, however, appears to have been the most successful. Aside from its eye-catching design, this was most likely a result of its location, which ensured it could be seen by thousands around the capital, as well as the select few who were able to go inside.
As Dimiziani points out, this kind of marketing works particularly well for Airbnb because it closely reflects the brand’s positioning, which is centred around providing people with memorable experiences in unusual spaces (accommodation available to rent on its site includes windmills, tree houses, castles, boats and even igloos).
“The defining part of an experience with Airbnb happens offline – on your trip in our hosts’ homes. We’ve found experiential marketing allows us to provide a sample of that, by literally recreating it. [And] in choosing places you wouldn’t expect to be able to stay, we’re able to show that everything is bookable and no experience should be out of bounds for anyone,” she adds. The project’s success also lies in the creative team’s attention to detail – it was a simple idea, but difficult to pull off, and the finished result is truly impressive.